Charles M. Haar, a Harvard Law School professor who advised President John F. Kennedy on urban planning and helped President Lyndon B. Johnson craft Great Society initiatives, agreed to tackle the cleanup of Boston Harbor in 1983 at the behest of Superior Court Judge Paul G. Garrity.
Named special master in the pollution lawsuit that eventually led to the historic harbor cleanup, Mr. Haar traipsed through sewage treatment facilities and gave the courts in Boston a shocking report.
Barely treated sewage - 863 gallons in a few months alone - was pouring into the harbor, ruining urban beaches with fecal matter, grease, and tampon applicators while fomenting ecological disaster and cutting citizens off from their heritage as a port city.
“We know how to fix the problems and the financial mechanisms exist,’’ he concluded, “but we lack the political will to merge the two.’’
But Mr. Haar, 91, who died of congestive heart failure Jan. 10 in Miami, did not stop with fact-finding. Described by friends as “more of a mason, than an architect,’’ he led the parties in the lawsuit to shift from courtroom adversaries to problem-solvers who drew up a plan to turn the tide of filth.
That opened a path for Garrity to enforce change. Water and sewer rates eventually doubled under the newly created Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, the judge took the heat, and Boston Harbor emerged as one of America’s biggest environmental success stories.
“His work both paved the way and laid out the road,’’ said Bruce Berman, director of communications and programs for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a nonprofit advocacy group that lauded Mr. Haar for his work.
Steven Horowitz, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Haar on the pollution suit filed by the city of Quincy against the Metropolitan District Commission, which set in motion Garrity’s actions, told the Globe in 1984 that Mr. Haar insisted on going the extra mile.
“Normally, you ask, ‘How can we judge this case?’ Charley starts from the other end and says, ‘How can we solve the problem?’ ’’ he said.
The son of Jewish parents who emigrated from Belgium in the 1920s, Mr. Haar learned English on the streets of New York City along with his sister, Esther, who died in her 50s. His father, Benjamin, was a diamond cutter who launched a small import business and often traveled while his mother, Dora, was at home.
“My mother was pleased if I got a 98 in school,’’ Mr. Haar told the Globe in a 1984 interview. “Then she’d ask, ‘Why didn’t you get 100?’ ’’
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from New York University, and from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s in economics. During World War II, he served as a Japanese language specialist, but declined an offer from the Army to stay on in Tokyo after the war. He went to Harvard Law School instead, graduating in 1948.
Mr. Haar worked in corporate law before he was appointed in 1952 as an assistant professor at the law school, where he became the Louis Brandeis professor of law. He helped established land-use law as a separate field.
“Charles Haar was a genuine pioneer who created new ways of making scholarship relevant to the improvement of the human condition through the improvement of the environment,’’ Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, said in a statement. “He was a visionary leader in the field of land-use law and urban planning with a focus on improving the lives of all Americans, regardless of race or economic status.’’
Mr. Haar served as an adviser on urban policy to three presidents. He was the first ever assistant secretary for metropolitan development in Johnson’s newly created US Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1966, he helped craft the Model Cities legislation, an ambitious plan to use federal aid to rebuild violence-battered urban areas.
Writing about the plan in 1975, Mr. Haar noted that “the urban plight is a genuine and pressing one, warranting the anguish of thought and deduction - and action.’’
“He was the classic example of knowledge into action,’’ said his friend and co-author Jerold Kayden, the Frank Backus Williams professor of urban planning, and design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “He was equally comfortably writing law review articles and books, but never got too far away from what I’ve described as the virtues of a crisp one-page memo.’’
Mr. Haar helped craft other key pieces of Johnson’s Great Society. In 1964, he was chairman of Johnson’s National Task Force on the Preservation of Natural Beauty in the early days of the modern environmentalist movement. He worked on the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1968; the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968; and was involved in the creation of the Federal National Mortgage Association, also in 1968.
He was married for 30 years to sociologist Suzanne Keller, the first woman to hold a tenured faculty position at Princeton and author of “Beyond the Ruling Class,’’ a groundbreaking 1963 book examining elite power structures in America. She died in 2010.
For many years, they kept homes in Key Biscayne, Fla., and Princeton.
Mr. Haar’s first marriage to Natalie Zinn ended in divorce. They had three children.
His daughter, Susan, of New York City, said he loved “the life of the mind,’’ as well as opera, good food, and jokes drawing on Jewish life.
“He was full of energy and had a tremendous amount of capacity for work,’’ she said. “He just kept going and going and did it with endurance and enthusiasm.’’
Mr. Haar also leaves his sons, Jeremy of Henderson, Nev., and Jonathan of Cambridge, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be announced.
Mr. Haar wrote numerous books. In his 1996 book “Suburbs Under Siege: Race, Space and Audacious Judges,’’ he argued that courts have a role in keeping suburbs open to all classes and races. The book was honored by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights.
He chronicled his work as special master in the Boston Harbor case in “Mastering Boston Harbor: Courts, Dolphins and Imperiled Waters,’’ published in 2005.
“It took a type of ‘collective heroism’ to seek change, identify causes of pollution, find ways around technological obstacles pointed out by engineers, overcome the shortsighted legislative maneuvers of politicians indifferent to the bigger picture, and finally begin to restore the harbor so that dolphins, sea lions - and humans - can swim in it,’’ he wrote.
He noted with sadness that Garrity, who died in 2004, did not live to see the book published.
“We both had looked forward to celebrating its publication and sharing yet another aspect of this ongoing adventure,’’ Mr. Haar wrote. “He was truly a force of nature. I feel his absence deeply.’’